Concluding correctly that he was dealing with an innocent in these matters, Tyson fixed him with a baleful stare. ''You ever see me fight?'' he asked. ''No. Well, don't miss this one because you'll be surprised.''
If an odd choice of phrase, it brought shouts of approval from a small band of black-overcoated men standing off to one side, whose bruised faces bore testimony to the punishment Tyson has been dealing out in the gymnasium.
A big theory in boxing is that fighters should have tough sparring partners and, according to one of Tyson's co-managers, Rory Holloway, theirs is the credit for a condition that shows in the former undisputed champion's hard body and the taut lines of his face.
Doubtless because reports that all had been felled by ferocious hooking could have an evil effect on Mathis' morale, his trainer, Joey Farrielo, has been putting it around that they are merely human punching bags, on whom Tyson has been practising his blows with impunity. In deep conversations with his man, Farrielo insists that Tyson's hired help seldom hit back and only by accident. ''There were better men in that camp but they were chased away after giving Tyson too much trouble,'' he insists.
What Farrielo chooses to ignore is that Mathis has been less than impressive in his own sparring sessions, almost novice-like in his attempts at evasion. When this was communicated to Tyson he shrugged dismissively. No predictions. No threats. Just an impression of menacing serenity.
When it was suggested that he seemed more relaxed, more in tune with the rhythms of a violent trade than before facing the inept Peter McNeeley in his August comeback, Tyson said. ''I'm a lot more confident. Most of the anxiety I felt before that fight has left me. It was more difficult than anybody imagined. Four years had passed since I'd fought and all the publicity created tremendous pressure.''
Referring to the three years he served for rape, Tyson added: ''You've got to realise that I was coming from a dismal place. I wasn't eased into the fight with McNeeley. I was thrust into it. People told me you have to move slowly. I thought I was ready for it. They were right. It wasn't like anything I'd known before. The feeling was there but not the confidence. I knew McNeeley was nothing but I also knew that I was expected to live up to all the expectations.''
At one stage of his incarceration, Tyson became so low in spirit that he thought seriously about giving up boxing. ''Prison is such an awful place,'' he said. ''Horrific. They strip you of your dignity and your manhood. I was catatonic. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I knew that if I didn't come back I'd make my enemies happy. And would giving up $30m have proved anything?''
According to Forbes magazine, contracts with the Showtime television network and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas made Tyson the second-highest earner in sport this year behind the basketball star, Michael Jordan, with a gross income of $40m. ''Obviously the money matters a lot,'' he said, ''but there is also ego and pride. I've still got the desire to prove that I'm the best, better than any heavyweight who has ever been and I feel that all things that helped make me champion are coming back. But I've still got to discover whether I am as good as I was when nobody could stand up to me.''
It means going back to being the heavyweight who spread terror throughout the division until wild indulgences caused so much personal upheaval that Tyson lost his championship to James ''Buster'' Douglas almost five years ago in Tokyo. Since Tyson's subsequent efforts suggested decline long before he was sent down, it will take substantial victories to re-establish him fully in the lore of boxing.
A conversion to Islam, the effect of imprisonment and evidence of paranoia are complications in any attempt to assess where Tyson now stands as a fighter, whether it is possible for him to recover the single-mindedness that Cus D'Amato implanted in a fugitive from the New York ghettoes. ''You're always fighting forces that want to sabotage you,'' he said. ''If you aren't strong you'll go under. I'm an enigma. There are African- Americans who like me and African-Americans who don't like me. There are Caucasian brothers who are crazy about me and Caucasians who aren't crazy about me.''
Of course it would be impossible for Tyson to speak about the future without reference to Riddick Bowe who, despite holding nothing more meaningful than the World Boxing Organisation title, claims to be the best heavyweight at work in the ring as a result of knocking out Evander Holyfield last month in Las Vegas. ''We are from the same place,'' Tyson said, speaking of Brownsville, a bleak district of Brooklyn. ''I went to school with him. He knows the history of my drawing potential. There's not a bigger draw out there than me. Our salaries should prove that. Riddick is a good fighter and deserves to be where he is. I have been away while he has been fighting so I'm not in a position to argue that I'm the best. But the day of judgement will come. Then we'll know.''
In the heavy coat and large button-topped cap Tyson wore when arriving for a press conference in the heart of Philadelphia on Wednesday, there was a renewed impression of historical influences, the old-time fighters who fired his ambitions in the ring.
Tyson's chief trainer, Jay Bright, insists that those ambitions are again securely in place. ''What I see is a better, far more mature fighter,'' he said. ''I'm convinced that he can beat anyone who comes up against him and what he's undertaking now is a prelude to the real thing. There's a sharpness about his work that I find tremendously exciting.''
Mathis didn't hear this but later he heard Tyson speaking. He was hearing the executioner's song.Reuse content